Monday, June 08, 2015

Coalition trying to keep mentally ill out of jails; health reform could be the key

Between 20 to 80 percent of inmates in U.S. jails are mentally ill, and about two million adults with mental illness are jailed each year, mostly because there is nowhere else to put the patients. The nation's number of psychiatric beds has decreased from 550,000 in 1960 to 40,000 today, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "In many places, police, judges and elected officials increasingly are pointing out that a high proportion of people in jail are mentally ill and that in many cases, they shouldn’t be there."

Studies say mentally ill "tend to stay in jail longer than those without mental illnesses, return to jail more often and cost local jurisdictions more money while incarcerated," Ollove writes. "More frequently than not, they are jailed for minor offenses, such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace or illicit drug use."

A coalition of groups is trying to keep the mentally ill from being incarcerated and get them the help they need, Ollove writes. Earlier this month, "the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the American Psychiatric Foundation and the National Association of Counties kicked off a national campaign to encourage local jurisdictions to collect data on the jailed mentally ill and adopt strategies to avoid incarceration. In February, the MacArthur Foundation announced it would send a total of $75 million to jurisdictions interested in reducing unnecessary incarceration of people, including the mentally ill."

States cut back mental health spending by a total of $4.35 billion from 2009 to 2012, "according to an often-cited study by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors," Ollove writes. "Many are hopeful that the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which extends health benefits to poor, single adults, will enable many to get mental health treatment and avoid the crises that previously landed them in jails. But 21 states have so far resisted expansion."

"For now, many jails across the country hold more mentally ill people than hospitals do," Ollove writes. That has led jail administration to be one of the highest costs for local governments because "the mentally ill often require more medical services and surveillance than other inmates." (Read more)

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